Monday, February 20, 2006

Iran: Searching for a Salsa Partner

Iran's quest for an alliance to counter U.S. aggression has brought Iranian parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel to the capitals of Venezuela and Cuba during an eight-day tour through Latin America. Though the emphasis of Haddad-Adel's visit is on energy, Iran is looking to secure rhetorical allies to add to its existing militant assets in the United States' backyard. READ MORE


Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon received Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, speaker of Iran's parliament, Feb. 16 in Havana. Haddad-Adel had just come from signing a memorandum of understanding on the peaceful use of nuclear energy in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 14, and will be wrapping up his tour through Latin America with visits to Uruguay and Brazil.

Iran's cozying up to leftist Latin governments is yet another way to unnerve the United States and warn of increasing pressure from the Southern Hemisphere. The Iranian-Latin alliance's main purpose is to attract more members to Tehran's broad anti-U.S. campaign and give the perception that Iran's political influence is such that Tehran now has more options beyond the Middle East.

Iran is also busy gearing up its leftist allies to back Tehran's battle cry against the additional protocols of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and Tehran is hinting none too subtly that it has no problem with helping countries develop peaceful nuclear programs. The Iranian regime has teamed up with the Venezuelan government to simultaneously argue against nuclear proliferation for military use and support the development of nuclear energy for civilian purposes. While Tehran is embroiled in its ongoing nuclear controversy with the West, the Iranian government has an interest in signaling to the United States that it can easily supply Venezuela with nuclear technology to cause trouble in Washington's backyard.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is clearly upping the ante with the United States, but rhetoric without action will keep Washington's ire at bay for now. Chavez may be willing to finance and provide oil-production technology to Iran in exchange for nuclear technology, but he will be more interested in adding the threat of acquiring nuclear power to its arsenal of pressure tactics against the United States.

Haddad-Adel has couched his Latin American visit in terms of "energy interdependence" among Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Iran, however, has neither the expertise to contribute technology to the region nor the need to provide petroleum to Latin America with oil giant Venezuela in the picture. Iran's petroleum and natural gas technological expertise remains decades behind current trends, despite assurances from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Bolivian President Evo Morales that Tehran will help Bolivia's foundering natural gas industry. Venezuela is the logical power behind the region's energy and ideological push, which makes the "energy" issue a relatively weak cover-up for the real reasons behind Hadded-Adel's visit. Behind every play of an energy card, there is a political motive; Iran and Venezuela, perceived to be working together on energy policy, would have more power to threaten an energy shut-off than either country would wield alone.

Beyond the rhetoric, another cause for concern for Washington is the presence of Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives in the lawless tri-border area of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, where money laundering, arms smuggling and drug trafficking dominate the industrial scene to fund terrorist activities. Approximately 630,000 people live in the tri-border area; roughly 25,000 are Arabs or of Arab descent and make up a Shiite majority.

Hezbollah's glory days in Latin America were marked by car-bomb attacks against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992 and the Jewish Community Center there in July 1994. Over the past decade, however, Hezbollah's militant momentum has declined, and the group's senior-level operatives have been more interested in running their businesses than in carrying out militant attacks. Should Iran face a serious threat of an attack against its nuclear sites, Tehran would like to use its closer cooperation with Latin America to remind Washington that it still has militant assets in the region that could be reactivated. Iran's directive to recharge its Hezbollah cells overseas will quickly pop up on the United States' and Israel's radar, as the veteran militants will likely be forced to go out and recruit members from the younger generation. There have been no indications as of yet that these activities are taking place.

Iran will be sure to publicize its flirtations with Latin America as much as possible to get Washington's attention. Whether Ahmadinejad makes more phone calls to his amigos Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, or more Iranian state visits are made to the region, talks between the Iranians and Latin Americans are likely to remain just that: talk.